The Saints are in the privileged position of not having a ton of needs, but rather wants, in this year’s draft. Sitting at the 24th overall pick, they have addressed wide receiver and cornerback. They’ve also re-signed left guard Andrus Peat to a huge deal. The one position that could use some shoring up at this point is linebacker, as A.J. Klein leaving for the Bills (once Brandon Beane heard a former Panther was a free agent this was over) leaves a gap.
The Saints still have Kiko Alonso and Alex Anzalone on the roster to complement the All-Pro Demario Davis, but their dubious injury history has left this a tenuous position on the depth chart. Alonso played in 13 games last year, but a torn ACL cut his season short, while Anzalone played in just two games last season.
With free agency effectively wrapped up at this point, attention has turned to the draft. Linebacker should become a more pressing need for the Saints, and Oklahoma standout Kenneth Murray could be just the player they need.
Murray had a solid combine, running a 4.52 and improving his stock overall. He’s generally pitted against Clemson’s Isaiah Simmons and LSU’s Patrick Queen when talking about linebackers in this year’s draft. Realistically, however, there’s a chance the Saints would have to move up to get him, especially after a solid combine.
The Panthers are drafting at No. 7, and they may jump at Simmons, while the Ravens are lurking at No. 28. The problem with that is that the Ravens have an abundance of draft capital this year, a Super Bowl window, and a desperate need for a linebacker. Given the Ravens’ past of making opposing front offices completely lose their minds, Eric DeCosta may have a move in mind.
That raises the question: Is Murray worth it?
One of his best attributes is that Murray is quick to react in the passing game, particularly the underneath game to the running back over the middle. The conference championship against Baylor last season indicated this.
This is a route the Saints should get used to seeing four times a year with Tom Brady and Teddy Bridgewater in the division. Baylor runs a quick little out and under on 2nd-and-long, a staple of most offenses.
Murray makes sure the play is DOA. He has his sights set on the running back as soon as the ball is let go, and he’s able to break up the play quickly.
Murray is also a sure tackler between the tackles, something that the Saints haven’t always had at linebacker.
Murray has an extremely impressive reaction to a QB draw on 1st & 10, looping into his gap to make a play for a short gain. Gap discipline has become extremely important for linebackers in today’s NFL, especially with the end around being such a big play last year. Murray appears to have that in spades.
The biggest concern with Murray is in terms of instincts against more complex offenses. In other words: Is he a Day 1 starter?
Oklahoma’s entire defense played scared against LSU, and Murray was no exception.
LSU completely freezes Murray with play action on second and short, which lets Justin Jefferson come out of the slot over the middle with ease.
The first thing Murray does on the play action is take two steps down, which frees Jefferson up. The final result?
Touchdown Jefferson and touchdown LSU. The first of many in this game.
Murray’s instincts in coverage do need some work, particularly in zone. He’ll sometimes pass receivers off too soon. However, he has the athleticism to make up for it.
The LSU game wasn’t ALL bad for Murray. He gets it right on this third and short.
With LSU running a drag route, he checks the receiver at the line to gain. With his checkdown option eliminated, Joe Burrow is forced to take the sack, and the Tigers are forced into fourth down.
Those are the kinds of plays the Saints would draft Murray for. Reacting pass, checking the underneath route at the sticks at taking it away is something that is harder to teach. Murray does so masterfully on this play.
Murray finished with 100-plus tackles in each of his last two seasons at Oklahoma, including a ridiculous 155 in 2018. He also stepped up in 2019, breaking up four passes. Murray didn’t record an interception at Oklahoma, so he’s not a Klein replacement. He’s a Davis complement.
In terms of intangibles, Murray also fits what the Saints are looking for this season. Sean Payton said at the beginning of the month that the Saints are looking for high-character players. When he was asked about red flags and evaluating them in this unique situation, Payton said:
If it was a character concern, you might bring that player in or go to the school and spend more time. The grade and the system and the way it’s set up on the board remains the same. But you may not be able to clarify or clean up some of the question marks you normally would in each year. How do we philosophically then approach the draft this year? I think it’s a great question. You might be more conservative relative to, aversion to taking a risk if you don’t have the information that you’re looking for.”
Murray is a high-character payer who outperformed his recruiting ranking. He’s a quick linebacker with solid instincts.
The Saints have shown that they’re willing to trade up for projects in the past. Marcus Davenport was an athletic monster who the Saints took a chance on. He’s been strong at defensive end to this point. Murray could be a similar situation, but the inverse. He’s undoubtedly a strong, fast linebacker, but his sideline-to-sideline speed isn’t at the level of a Roquan Smith type. Murray is a player with good instincts and above-average athletic ability.
With that in mind, the Saints wouldn’t be trading up for a Day 1 starter. But they would be trading up for an athletic player who has a clear ability to learn the game. The Saints have a propensity for trading up, and the situation at hand might make them a bit more conservative. On the other hand, linebacker depth is clearly one of their biggest issues right now, and drafting Murray would address that need both short and long-term.